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  • I guess the story actually has to start

  • maybe back in the the 1960s,

  • when I was seven or eight years old,

  • watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on the living room floor

  • with my mask and flippers on.

  • Then after every episode, I had to go up to the bathtub

  • and swim around the bathtub and look at the drain,

  • because that's all there was to look at.

  • And by the time I turned 16,

  • I pursued a career in marine science,

  • in exploration and diving,

  • and lived in underwater habitats, like this one off the Florida Keys,

  • for 30 days total.

  • Brian Skerry took this shot. Thanks, Brian.

  • And I've dived in deep-sea submersibles around the world.

  • And this one is the deepest diving submarine in the world,

  • operated by the Japanese government.

  • And Sylvia Earle and I

  • were on an expedition in this submarine

  • 20 years ago in Japan.

  • And on my dive, I went down 18,000 feet,

  • to an area that I thought

  • would be pristine wilderness area on the sea floor.

  • But when I got there, I found

  • lots of plastic garbage and other debris.

  • And it was really a turning point in my life,

  • where I started to realize

  • that I couldn't just go have fun doing science and exploration.

  • I needed to put it into a context.

  • I needed to head towards conservation goals.

  • So I began to work

  • with National Geographic Society and others

  • and led expeditions to Antarctica.

  • I led three diving expeditions to Antarctica.

  • Ten years ago was a seminal trip,

  • where we explored that big iceberg, B-15,

  • the largest iceberg in history, that broke off the Ross Ice Shelf.

  • And we developed techniques

  • to dive inside and under the iceberg,

  • such as heating pads on our kidneys

  • with a battery that we dragged around,

  • so that, as the blood flowed through our kidneys,

  • it would get a little boost of warmth

  • before going back into our bodies.

  • But after three trips to Antarctica,

  • I decided that it might be nicer to work in warmer water.

  • And that same year, 10 years ago,

  • I headed north to the Phoenix Islands.

  • And I'm going to tell you that story here in a moment.

  • But before I do, I just want you to ponder this graph for a moment.

  • You may have seen this in other forms,

  • but the top line is the amount of protected area

  • on land, globally,

  • and it's about 12 percent.

  • And you can see that it kind of hockey sticks up

  • around the 1960s and '70s,

  • and it's on kind of a nice trajectory right now.

  • And that's probably because

  • that's when everybody got aware of the environment

  • and Earth Day

  • and all the stuff that happened in the '60s with the Hippies and everything

  • really did, I think, have an affect on global awareness.

  • But the ocean-protected area

  • is basically flat line

  • until right about now -- it appears to be ticking up.

  • And I do believe that we are at the hockey stick point

  • of the protected area in the ocean.

  • I think we would have gotten there a lot earlier

  • if we could see what happens in the ocean

  • like we can see what happens on land.

  • But unfortunately, the ocean is opaque,

  • and we can't see what's going on.

  • And therefore we're way behind on protection.

  • But scuba diving, submersibles

  • and all the work that we're setting about to do here

  • will help rectify that.

  • So where are the Phoenix Islands?

  • They were the world's largest marine-protected area

  • up until last week

  • when the Chagos Archipelago was declared.

  • It's in the mid-Pacific. It's about five days from anywhere.

  • If you want to get to the Phoenix Islands,

  • it's five days from Fiji,

  • it's five days from Hawaii, it's five days from Samoa.

  • It's out in the middle of the Pacific,

  • right around the Equator.

  • I had never heard of the islands 10 years ago,

  • nor the country, Kiribati, that owns them,

  • till two friends of mine who run a liveaboard dive boat in Fiji

  • said, "Greg, would you lead a scientific expedition up to these islands?

  • They've never been dived."

  • And I said, "Yeah.

  • But tell me where they are and the country that owns them."

  • So that's when I first learned of the Islands

  • and had no idea what I was getting into.

  • But I was in for the adventure.

  • Let me give you a little peek here of the Phoenix Islands-protected area.

  • It's a very deep-water part of our planet.

  • The average depths are about 12,000 ft.

  • There's lots of seamounts in the Phoenix Islands,

  • which are specifically part of the protected area.

  • Seamounts are important for biodiversity.

  • There's actually more mountains in the ocean than there are on land.

  • It's an interesting fact.

  • And the Phoenix Islands is very rich in those seamounts.

  • So it's a deep -- think about it in a big three-dimensional space,

  • very deep three-dimensional space

  • with herds of tuna, whales,

  • all kinds of deep sea marine life

  • like we've seen here before.

  • That's the vessel that we took up there

  • for these studies, early on,

  • and that's what the Islands look like -- you can see in the background.

  • They're very low to the water,

  • and they're all uninhabited, except one island

  • has about 35 caretakers on it.

  • And they've been uninhabited for most of time

  • because even in the ancient days,

  • these islands were too far away

  • from the bright lights of Fiji and Hawaii and Tahiti

  • for those ancient Polynesian mariners

  • that were traversing the Pacific so widely.

  • But we got up there,

  • and I had the unique and wonderful scientific opportunity and personal opportunity

  • to get to a place that had never been dived

  • and just get to an island and go, "Okay, where are we going to dive?

  • Let's try there,"

  • and then falling into the water.

  • Both my personal and my professional life changed.

  • Suddenly, I saw a world

  • that I had never seen before in the ocean --

  • schools of fish that were so dense

  • they dulled the penetration of sunlight from the surface,

  • coral reefs that were continuous

  • and solid and colorful,

  • large fish everywhere,

  • manta rays.

  • It was an ecosystem. Parrotfish spawning --

  • this is about 5,000 longnose parrotfish spawning

  • at the entrance to one of the Phoenix Islands.

  • You can see the fish are balled up

  • and then there's a little cloudy area there

  • where they're exchanging the eggs and sperm for reproduction --

  • events that the ocean is supposed to do,

  • but struggles to do in many places now

  • because of human activity.

  • The Phoenix Islands and all the equatorial parts of our planet

  • are very important for tuna fisheries,

  • especially this yellowfin tuna that you see here.

  • Phoenix Islands is a major tuna location.

  • And sharks -- we had sharks on our early dives,

  • up to 150 sharks at once,

  • which is an indication

  • of a very, very healthy, very strong, system.

  • So I thought the scenes

  • of never-ending wilderness

  • would go on forever,

  • but they did finally come to an end.

  • And we explored the surface of the Islands as well --

  • very important bird nesting site,

  • some of the most important bird-nesting sites in the Pacific, in the world.

  • And we finished our trip.

  • And that's the area again.

  • You can see the Islands -- there are eight islands --

  • that pop out of the water.

  • The peaks that don't come out of the water are the seamounts.

  • Remember, a seamount turns into an island when it hits the surface.

  • And what's the context of the Phoenix Islands?

  • Where do these exist?

  • Well they exist in the Republic of Kiribati,

  • and Kiribati is located in the Central Pacific

  • in three island groups.

  • In the west we have the Gilbert Islands.

  • In the center we have the Phoenix Islands,

  • which is the subject that I'm talking about.

  • And then over to the east we have the Line Islands.

  • It's the largest atoll nation in the world.

  • And they have

  • about 110,000 people

  • spread out over 33 islands.

  • They control 3.4 million cubic miles of ocean,

  • and that's between one and two percent

  • of all the ocean water on the planet.

  • And when I was first going up there,

  • I barely knew the name of this country 10 years ago,

  • and people would ask me,

  • "Why are you going to this place called Kiribati?"

  • And it reminded me of that old joke

  • where the bank robber comes out of the courthouse handcuffed,

  • and the reporter yells, "Hey, Willy. Why do you rob banks?"

  • And he says, "cause that's where all the money is."

  • And I would tell people, "Why do I go to Kiribati?

  • Because that's where all the ocean is."

  • They basically are one nation

  • that controls most of the equatorial waters

  • of the Central Pacific Ocean.

  • They're also a country

  • that is in dire danger.

  • Sea levels are rising,

  • and Kiribati, along with 42 other nations in the world,

  • will be under water within 50 to 100 years

  • due to climate change

  • and the associated sea-level rise from thermal expansion

  • and the melting of freshwater into the ocean.

  • The Islands rise only one to two meters

  • above the surface.

  • Some of the islands have already gone under water.

  • And these nations are faced with a real problem.

  • We as a world are faced with a problem.

  • What do we do with displaced fellow Earthlings

  • who no longer have a home on the planet?

  • The president of the Maldives

  • conducted a mock cabinet meeting

  • underwater recently

  • to highlight the dire straits of these countries.

  • So it's something we need to focus on.

  • But back to the Phoenix Islands,

  • which is the subject of this Talk.

  • After I got back, I said,

  • okay, this is amazing, what we found.

  • I'd like to go back and share it with the government of Kiribati,

  • who are over in Tarawa,

  • the westernmost group.

  • So I started contacting them --

  • because they had actually given me a permit to do this --

  • and I said, "I want to come up and tell you what we found."

  • And for some reason they didn't want me to come,

  • or it was hard to find a time and a place, and it took a while,

  • but finally they said, "Okay, you can come.

  • But if you come, you have to buy lunch

  • for everybody who comes to the seminar."

  • So I said, "Okay, I'm happy to buy lunch.

  • Just get whatever anybody wants."

  • So David Obura, a coral reef biologist, and I went to Tarawa,

  • and we presented for two hours

  • on the amazing findings of the Phoenix Islands.

  • And the country never knew this. They never had any data from this area.

  • They'd never had any information from the Phoenix Islands.

  • After the talk, the Minister of Fisheries walked up to me

  • and he said, "Greg, do you realize

  • that you are the first scientist

  • who has ever come back

  • and told us what they did?"

  • He said, "We often issue these permits

  • to do research in our waters,

  • but usually we get a note two or three years later,

  • or a reprint.

  • But you're the first one who's ever come back and told us what you did.